The earth looked beautiful from the space; that was precisely what Mandy knew all great astronauts had said looking down upon our planet. She of course thought that it had lots to do with emotional attachments one feels with one’s home; which is earth, so to say for each one of us. However, on looking down the window of the LunaLunaX, she felt that our sphere was picturesque perfect with all the tranquil blues, the splashes of green and bordering stretches of brown. It was even more perfect because all the fighting going on down there couldn’t be seen from a distance of a million miles unto space. As for the myth of the Great Wall of China, she had no way to tell, with large chunks of the wall already torn down and blown away during the WW-III. Iconoclastic or not, the fighting was true, and as much as humankind had taken leaps in economic development, and technological advance, no one had bothered to bridge the gap between the affluent and the deprived. Social and political conferences were held across the world, regarding the eradication of such evil, but hardly anyone bothered to trace back the discontentment to the enormous disparity among social classes, that had broadened to unprecedented limits in the twenty-second century.
For every one person who could opt to stay alive for as long as they wished, there were four children who died from malnutrition in their infancy. For every new achievement in genetic studies, a thousand people were subjected to brutal tests in the name of the ‘larger good’. For every skyway built around the face of the planet, a thousand rolling meadows were sacrificed, and for establishment of each new manufacturing plant, thousands of acres of farmlands were wiped off. Mandy was happy that she was a ‘society wife’ and that Sam had the political and economic approach to have opted for the ‘Beta’ facilities. If they had the constraint of limiting their aspirations to the Beta facility, they were still better off than 99.9% of the world’s population, only 1% of whom had the resources for the Gamma and Delta facilities. Of course, availing the Alpha would have been their dreams come true, but that was strictly confined to the reaches of world leaders and a few selected renowned men. Anyway, Beta facility wasn’t that bad either; though Sam and she had to put a lot at stake for that.
Their blooming careers, their beautiful LA mansion, their relatives, and all the places they had loved or had ever dreamt of visiting…. Everything went away with their choice, but it held a certain degree of satisfaction, for their child would be among the elite 0.1% of humankind, who would be free of risks, living away from all the incessant fighting, the widespread epidemics, extreme global warming, rapidly diminishing natural resources and the uncertainty of a normal life. It was great having two centuries worth of lifetime, living comfortably on LunaX, and reading about all the horrors of living on earth from a safe distance. Basically, Mars was the God of War, and therefore, after decades of discussions and debates between bureaucrats, scholars and statesmen, they changed the name to LunaX, just to free the name from any terror-inducing implications. This was absurd, of course, especially coming from the very men who’d decided to inflict so much of terror on Earth, but that was inconsequential now, Mandy thought. It was great that human settlements on this alternative planet, LunaX had been going on for the last five decades; it meant considerably negligible chances of any uncertainty associated with inhabiting a new planet. Moreover, the LunaX babies had significantly longer lifespans, considering Uberspace’s new venture. Mandy had spoken with Brenda two years ago, and she had decided right then and there, that no matter what the costs, she would opt for the ‘Beta’ facility for her offspring. It was marvellous; she had parted with all her philosophical outlook on life in that one instant. To hell with the future of humankind, forget about all the injustice and the social disparity. Her child was hers, and she would ensure that she provided the best to her child.
As LunaLunaX neared its destination, the LunaX could be seen, veiled behind the beautiful muted glow of the Atmos Sphere. What a relief it was that Zoranium could be recycled, for LunaX thrived upon the fission of a Zoranium atom into various atoms that constituted the air they breathed on the planet. Atmos Sphere was a huge transparent ball that encased LunaX and maintained the atmospheric stability around its surface. Small vents at Coordinate 00 ensured that some of the air leaked out beyond the Atmos Sphere, which was burnt to serve as the primary light source on LunaX. Mandy had loved this concept of creating an artificial sun, all for the benefits of LunaX residents. When she had asked Sam if they would yearn for actual days and nights, as on earth; he had replied that even that was relative. He had reminded her that day and night were phenomena that occurred because of earth's rotation, its distance from the sun, parallax, the atmospheric density etc. Since LunaX also had its own sun, there was no reason why they should feel any difference.
It was as smooth as a piece of cake, Sam had said; and now Mandy couldn’t agree more. Every little arrangement had been made on LunaX to the finest degree of perfection. Uberspace Corp. had changed the face of humankind’s history with unprecedented force and unimaginable success. The organization had worked tirelessly towards providing the best of facilities to everyone at nominal charges, which in their case was just below two thousand billion dollars. God knew what the charges for the Alpha facility were!
Mandy wasn’t much bothered about the privileges associated with Alpha facilities though, for even the Beta facilities meant a lifespan nearing some two hundred years, something that was done by complete genomic transcription and reprogramming by the SuperCompX, that had a counter-part working on earth which recorded all embryonic information from the foetus as soon as an expectant couple enrolled for their services. Mandy was happy that the only step that remained would be the easiest; downloading the complete genomic codes into her wrist pack and going for the regular treatment facilities once her child was born. The treatment went on for a little more than three years during which period much of the genomic configuration of the child would be altered in accordance with the blueprint that Mandy would very soon be downloading, and then, she would have one of the near-perfect children, something the idiots who were fighting on earth could hardly envisage. Scientists had discovered long ago that complete isolation from all kinds of pathogens would actually harm a person's immune system, thus reducing the rate of recovery in case of even a small cut. Thus, SuperCompX on earth auto-generated a set of random codes that were actually the digital flowchart of a child's major life-events, carefully punctuated at specific intervals, by certain diseases that would help develop the autoimmune system. The SuperCompX counterpart on the LunaX simply downloaded that information and the android physicians worked upon transcribing the same into the child's gene. It excited Mandy to think that her child's long and healthy life had already been sketched down to the finest details by Uberspace; she looked forward to discovering it.
It was true that Sam had earned a lot, and not all of that had been earned fair and square, but Mandy no longer had any qualms regarding any of it; she was feeling unusually happy, on the contrary. She was excited that Uberspace had finally acceded to the LunaX citizens’ demands regarding the Earth Imitation Programme. It was true that there was full access to anything on earth from here, but having real things here was something different. Seven-D access to everything on earth certainly gave the real-time feeling of skydiving in New Zealand or playing beach ball at the Copa Cabana, but hardly provided the satisfaction of actually having been there. Thankfully, Uberspace had started designing LunaX in line with earth, starting with the United States. She was happy that her child could see the Niagara Falls in reality when he grew up. It would be wonderful. They might even someday plan for a holiday in Europe, the LunaX Europe that would be more perfect, safer and risk-free. How she would love for her child to go skiing; he would be infallible at it. Sometimes she would spend a whole night discussing with Sam, what they wanted for their child's future. Sam thought studies would be good enough, but Mandy wanted an athlete. She even argued about the futility of all that rigorous exercise for the child's brain, when there was nearly nothing else left for humankind to discover. Of what use would education be, as such?
Disembarking was a lengthy affair when they reached LunaX. The LunaLunaX was supposed to engage at precise coordinates, where they had space sockets; Mandy thought it would take a lifetime to get off the spaceship. She was well into her second trimester and had been experiencing the problem of developing slight oedema in her feet. All the flying had left her feeling slightly queasy. The oxygen rich environment had done little to alleviate the suffering; she saw the physicians from Uberspace Corp. handing pills to the people who had finally started emerging. Those were supposed to be antidotes for atelectasis, or mucus accumulation in the alveoli caused by inhaling oxygen rich air for too long. She knew that it would take still some time for the Beta facility members to disembark. The three-day long voyage had taken some toll upon her health, for she didn't feel too immaculate herself. She wondered how the heavily pregnant woman from the Alpha Club had managed it, but then they had travelled Alpha Class. Mandy tried peering around looking for the SuperCompX. She was sure that Brenda had told her that moms were specifically assigned to do the honours. What an exciting thought that seemed to be! She would have the blueprint of two centuries worth of a lifetime for her offspring. These thoughts made Mandy feel marginally better; the morning sickness made her shudder with an onslaught of another wave of nausea. Why the hell were the Alpha members taking so long to disembark? All that Mandy wanted now was to get off, get themselves registered, download all the information from the SuperCompX and be escorted to their cottage, where she would plunge right into a hot bath.
It was nearly a couple hours before they finally emerged from the spacecraft and set foot on LunaX. Mandy felt paralyzed by the momentary temperature difference she encountered while stepping inside Atmos Sphere from outside. Even the space capsule hardly camouflaged the freezing temperature outside.
The lady in Uberspace uniform made a gesture towards her to move along the queue of would-be moms. She started feeling fidgety. Once she reached the SuperCompX, she removed her wrist pack and touched it to the console. She knew that it took a few minutes for the data to download, but hers was done in a jiffy. Right beside the computer was another which deciphered the computer language into pages of human languages. Mandy gingerly inserted the cable into her wrist pack. The screen blinked thrice and returned just one word; 'VOID'.
Mandy repeated the exercise twice, and upon finding the same on all three occasions, her hysteria erupted.
"What's this? Something's wrong here... HELP! SAM, HELP!"
The Uberspace Volunteer seized her by her arm and led her away from the console.
"This is an extremely unfortunate incident, Ma'm. Happens once in probably a million; the earth SuperCompX must have malfunctioned while performing your initial embryonic scan, but don't worry, we could arrange for a refund minus the travelling charges".
"You bastards! What does it mean? My child isn't going to live?"
"Exactly Ma'm. Without his genomic transcription, he wouldn't be able to make it on LunaX. But you can always try for another. That's free because you're enrolled and have paid in full". The volunteer's courteous voice had caught a challenging edge.
Mandy kept kicking and shrieking as they began leading her away to the cottage....
A Trail of Roses
She didn’t have the patience to answer the incessant volley of questions that the garrulous woman impaled her with. The growing belly wasn’t a thing of concern for her as yet; she had the privilege of a great physique. Tall and svelte, she was the epitome of beauty for many a young Calcuttan women. Some adored her and spoke fondly of her blonde hair, her blue eyes and her porcelain smooth skin, bestowing upon her the quintessential salutation of ‘Mem’, the distorted Indianized version of ‘Madam’ or ‘Ma’m’. Others didn’t have such big hearts. Their way of expression was cynical. They distrusted everything about the ‘firingee meyechhele’. It was a derogatory term to use for anyone; she’d learnt during her stay in Calcutta. ‘Meye’ literally translated into girl in English while ‘Chhele’ meant a boy, but when you combined both, it gave the picture of an odious female, who possessed qualities unfit for respectable women of the times.
Presently, crammed into the very last seat she could manage on the Indian Airlines Flight flying from Patna, bound for Kathmandu, she sat ruminating about her past, present and future. The choices she’d made, the men who’d made and broken her, her birth, her relationships and her need to assert herself. It all seemed too distant now for the first trimester of her pregnancy had left her jarred with exhaustion. She remembered that she hadn’t had anything to eat in a while, since last evening to be precise. Looking at her watch, she realized it had been nearly fifteen hours since she’d had her last meal comprising of a measly bowl of short and stubby rice, covered with what was a fair attempt at curry cooking, except that she’d never had so many vegetables curried into a single dish ever before.
The woman sitting beside her was evidently travelling with her husband and horde of kids, who were especially mischievous and rampant with their obnoxious pranks. They pranced around the aisle, happy about their coming Himalayan soiree. Their father was a stoic man, who had a sharp jawline. He sat on the aisle seat just one row ahead of where she sat, and all that she could see from her vantage point, was that he was nothing like his wife who was short, plump and probably had a genuine smattering of oriental genes. Her eyes had the perpetual look of curiosity and the monolids gave them a comic touch of eternal perplexity. The wide-eyed curious look of a woman who had seen too less of life, and even less of the hard parts. She was dressed in typical seventies style polka dots. Her sari was black polka dots on a background of white, and her sleeveless blouse was just the opposite; white dots punctuating a black background. It gave her the image of roly-poly chessboard that huffed and puffed as the plane took off, her seat belt digging into her lower belly that stuck out impassively. One of the boys was seated next to his mom by the window, and it was a welcome respite when he decided that he’d had enough of monkey business for the day, and looked out the window, switching to commentary mode instead. That was better, she thought, trying to catch up with forty winks.
Her plans were smashed soon enough. Her neighbour poked her on the arm.
“Akela akela Kathmandu jaata, dar nahi lagta?” her eyes were shining with excitement. The question wouldn’t have irked her, but she was extremely tired, pregnant and unsure of what she was going to find once she got to Kathmandu. In addition to all these, she was hungry.
What a bothersome woman, she thought, before replying in English. She thought that creating this language gap would be the best way to stave off such unsolicited questions.
“Why should I be afraid of going alone to Kathmandu?”
The response seemed to have the intended effect on the target. Blinking a few times, she seemed to make up her mind. Then she replied in Hindi.
“Hamara pati. Officer. Customs mein hai. Kathmandu to bahut khatarnak jaigah. Kya jaane kya pakadne jaata hai hamara pati. Senior officer hai to. Isliye hum bhi ghoomne chala aya. Suna bahut foreigner rehta hai wahan.”
She understood the sensible no-nonsense look on the husband’s face now. He was serving in Customs and was probably going to attend to a tip-off about something. Maybe, it was some bureaucratic paper-work that was required. She surmised he probably didn’t expect the mission to be one of action or he wouldn’t have taken along his family. The woman was excited that she’d be seeing a lot of foreigners in Kathmandu. Her infectious enthusiasm was irritating and it was no wonder that her husband had found himself the morning papers to delve in. Either way, she wasn’t exactly interested in the affair. She decided not much time would be there for her to rest, and so, she ceremoniously let out an exaggerated yawn, and closed her eyes. Soon enough she fell into a deep sleep.
India, ever since her heydays during the Harappan civilization, had probably been home to multi-ethnic people, which led to a rise of cultural diversity. The earliest period of documentation of such diversity was when the Vedic culture came to an end and India saw rise of Buddhism, a sect that diverged from mainstream Sanatana Dharma, literally translating to ‘Eternal Religion’ or the founding philosophy behind modern day Hinduism. It is believed that during Gautam Buddha’s own lifetime, there were already sixteen important republics known as Mahajanapadas sprawled across what was the then Indian subcontinent. The most prominent among them were the Shakyas of Kapilavastu and the Lichhavis of Vaishali. This goes on to show how easily accommodative the natives were of cultural or philosophical differences. So many invasions later, India had seen most of the tribes living around the then Eurasia, and had sustained through the mindless plunders.
It was no wonder that with ascent of the Mughal Sultanate in Delhi, India found her myriads of castes, creeds, ethnicities and philosophies united under a common umbrella that had a strong background; strong enough to command millions under the name of the dynasty. By the time the Mughal dynasty ruled the Indian subcontinent, there were already several different independent Hindu and Muslim pockets strewn across the region. The Ummayad Caliphate’s excursion from Damascus, and their eventual invasion of the Baluchistan and Sindh provinces and then the entry into India, had already exposed India to a ‘religiously different power’. The plundering of the Somenath Mandir stationed by the Arabian Sea, by Mahmud of Ghazni, nearly five hundred years before the advent of the Sultanate, had therefore given the country a chance for outrage. The united voice of outrage didn’t emerge though, because of the multi-ethnicity and lack of a common governing body that could give a feeling of unity among the number of sovereign pockets.
Mughal period wasn’t only a time of immense socio-political development, but also found the need for rise of the Sikh movement ushered in by Guru Nanak Deva, the Maratha movement assembled under the able leadership of Chhatrapati Shivaji, and then the final stages of the Bhakti movement. This shows that oppression under Islamic rule was already present. Eventually, it would be ironic how Bahadur Shah II would be deported to Rangoon by the British on suspicions of being an accomplice and patron of the Sepoy Mutinee of 1857. India’s struggle for independence came in periodic spurts. It was strange how the struggle for India’s independence denoted solely the period of movement against British Raj. The Battle of Plassey in 1757 was a decisive victory for the British where they defeated Bengal’s last Nawab, Siraj-ud-Daulah, who was being aided by the French.
The British had been lucky enough to find a few defectors within Siraj’s own army, most prominent among them, his demoted Chief of Army, Mir Jaafar. The British had been anxious about getting outnumbered by the French army that had been sent to reinforce the Nawab’s troops. When they got hold of people like Mir Jaafar and a few others like Yar Lutuf Khan, the influential Jagat Seths, represented by Mahtab Chand and Swarup Chand, Umichand and Rai Durlabh, they got the leverage of having the Nawab’s army stationed at the battlefield, but without any command of taking positions.
As a result, the Nawab’s 50,000 strong army saw defeat at the hands of Robert Clive’s measly force of 3,000 soldiers. This was the most apt reply the British could give to the insolent twenty-three year old Siraj, who was said to have been a combination of volatile temperament and lack of political finesse that the earlier Nawab, his grandfather, Alivardi Khan had shown until his death. Although sceptical of the profit mongering British East India Company himself, he’d successfully walked the fine line of balanced diplomacy and shrewdness. Siraj, on the other hand, was furious when he learnt of the British attack on Chandannagore Fort, a French centre at the time.
The Mutiny of 1857 also saw the transfer of power from the British East India Company directly to the British Crown. The independence movements didn’t subside though. The years since the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny were tumultuous for the British rule in India. Too many charismatic leaders had come to guide and stoke the nationalistic fervour; some believed in violence, others in non-violence. The British saw that their rule in India wouldn’t be there for very long, but the dying embers of the Raj saw a few hapless British men and women stranded in India. They were people who had the spirit of a losing athlete who’d seen better days, and they revelled in the memories of a dying afternoon.
The remaining Sahebs and Memsahebs felt a constant threat to their lives, and with good reason too. After more than two centuries of oppression of local masses by their race, they hardly had anything to complain about. The recurring famines, the increasing burden of taxes levied on farmers, forced the depleting British power in India, to reconsider their sense of security and power they had hitherto maintained. British women became scarce on Indian lands, and a predominant custom of the times emerged in the form of marriage of British soldiers to Indian women. This gave rise to a new race – that of the Anglo-Indians, who’d already started feeling jittery by the turn of the twentieth century. The sheer shrewdness of British policies implemented almost unilaterally on India, had been brought out to light and everyone was well aware that this didn’t particularly endear the firingees to Indians.
They therefore required a safe haven for themselves; a replica of their motherland, England, right in the heart of India. The British didn’t consider their Anglo-Indian counterparts, as English as they themselves were. They never got the equality they should have gotten from the British, while the Indians always eyed them with suspicion. The nearer India’s independence drew, the more uncertain the fate of this community appeared. That was when Ernest Timothy McCluskie, an Anglo Indian from Calcutta, born to an Irish father and an Indian mother, came up with the novel idea of creating such a homeland for the families whose future needed to be ascertained.
Thankfully, McCluskie was an astute businessman, and once he’d set his mind to this idea, he coaxed and cajoled Raja Uday Pratap Nath Shah Deo of the Nagavanshis , or the then Zamindar of Chhota Nagpur Plateau, to lease out some 10,000 acres of land, near Ranchi of the then Bihar. McCluskie got what he wanted and the Raja was later-on conferred with the title of Kaiser-e-Hind Medal for his public services.
Thus came to be established around 1920, an idyllic Anglo-Indian colony in the heartland of India, which would be known as McCluskieganj. The location was ideal; it provided access to the railway, to a river as well as a road, and the place soon enough thrived with a colonization society established according to McCluskie’s plan, that permitted Anglo-Indians to buy shares in the cooperative society, and get a plot of land in return for their investment. The scheme wasn’t limited to people of English descent though, anyone having Portuguese, Dutch or French parentage could also invest in the society.
Soon enough, the Ganj of their dreams was built; a safe haven, a firingee colony that was exclusively for the Sahebs and Memsahebs, who arrived trudging along their European fanfare behind them. Heavy wooden chests, shotguns, rifles, and weapons fit for preservation in any armoury, riding breeches, pianos… the list was endless. It was the picture of a cross between an Indian tropical heaven replete with marigolds, hibiscus and chrysanthemums, with proper European way of life.
The three ‘R’s didn’t suffice for the fourth ‘R’ though. McCluskie hadn’t thought about remuneration, or livelihood, so to say. It had been thought that the residents would survive on agriculture. It was a notion that didn’t have much practicability because this was an endeavour that the Sahebs neither had the capability, nor the willingness to partake. Thus, where initial years found the place thriving with residents, the numbers dwindled within passing of merely two decades. Most of the residents had already made a hasty exit by the late 1940s. They migrated to United Kingdom, the United States, Australia and Canada, and the liveliness of the community declined. The once majestic bungalows now stood abandoned, often sold for a pittance to customers, while owners left in a hurry. Some housekeepers took over from the owners, having gained a stature they’d only hitherto dreamt of.
Amid the exodus of erstwhile residents, some families chose to stay behind. Among them were the Hourigan family. They had the proud genes typical of Irishmen. They loved their lands and had taken to McCluskieganj as if they had found a suitable and emotionally fulfilling alternative to Clanmaurice in Kerry County, back in their homeland. Hourigan Sr. found the Church in McCluskieganj as an apt substitute to the Killarney Roman Catholic Church, where he was christened. Elizabeth had always felt left out of her family legacy, because she’d never be called Hourigan Jr. That name had already been taken by her father. Her grandfather had been a hard-core patriot and he loved the fact that he’d served in the army. He’d always told his son, Elizabeth’s father, that one needed to respect the land. Whichever country one lived in, what mattered was that one had to have the solidarity for the country and the people in their heart. Thus it was no wonder that Hourigan Jr. was drafted to the Indian Air Force when he’d grown up.
Elizabeth therefore grew up in a household predominantly lacking a father figure. She’d seen so less of her father during her childhood that she sometimes felt stifled by his sporadic visits. All he would ever do was to sit in front of the gramophone, haul in hordes of vinyl, and sit languishing in his recliner, his love for country music taking over his senses. John Hourigan had never attended to the needs of his family, and when he did turn up at home, he didn’t know what to do. All he had was his booze, his music and his bad temper. Elizabeth had seen him hitting her mother so often while he was home, that she began detesting his presence. This led her to stop relying on men. She got to believing that men were rough feral animals who loved dominating docile womenfolk.
She was exceptionally anxious when her father turned up to stay at home permanently, after he’d retired. She was thirteen at the time. Almost as soon as he was home, he began grumbling about the expenses, which according to him, were too much for his meagre pension.
Soon enough, his incessant drinking binges landed the family in penury. What little of the money was left, John Hourigan quickly put into his apparently far-sighted investment. He bragged that the family would one day be proud of his smartness; he’d purchased the shares of a great Calcutta based business conglomerate. He said that the company owned coal mines, tea estates, engineering ventures, among a number of other enterprises that were sure to give a high return. John Hourigan found out soon enough that he’d been wrong in even the one thoughtful step he’d taken during his lifetime.
He began withering just like the vines that had begun climbing along the rafters of the bungalow. A smell of abuse crept into the Hourigan household with each passing day. Elizabeth remembered seeing her mom going to sell her wares at the Railway Station. She toiled hard at the kitchen garden, growing onion greens and tomatoes and pumpkins. Retaining what she thought would be required for her household consumption, she sold the rest along with a number of sweet and savoury bakes. She often sold out her wares, and returned home empty-handed at others. McCluskieganj had begun dying a slow and painful death. It wasn’t only the Hourigan family that had been affected by the throes of time, and Karen Hourigan often found a dearth of buyers who had enough purchasing power for her merchandise.
Eventually John Hourigan did what he felt he could, to redeem his image in the eyes of his wife and his daughter. He’d never bothered about impressing his own father because he despised the old man with vengeance for not thinking highly of him, ever! He didn’t have a dime to care about now, that he was dead, and Elizabeth felt sorry for her mother, who looked like patience personified, in comparison to her unruly and boisterous husband. Elizabeth respected her mother for her ability to forget and forgive.
John Hourigan began going to Calcutta, his pockets heavy with his savings, basically his wife’s hard-earned money. He went to the derby, and needless to mention, lost his money most of the time. His occasional outings however provided him with the necessary outlet to channelize his energy into meeting people. John Hourigan had quick charms readily up his sleeves, and he didn’t fail to impress people when he recollected anecdotes of the glorious yesteryears. The race course regulars had a social circle that they cherished, and Hourigan, with his grey eyes, tall with a faint hint of the youthful handsomeness left behind, presented a great romantic picture to many of the new generation Bengali Sahebs and Memsahebs.
These were a new creed of anglicised liberal Bengalis, who considered themselves ‘enlightened’ by their acceptance and adaptation of the fading traditions of the yore. They spoke on serious topics like communism, the fruits of the two great wars, the impending Americanization of the world, and the changing face of socio-political conditions in the country. Calcutta was that metropolis of India which boasted of having retained the ‘elegance’ of the erstwhile British era. It was a swirling paraphernalia of sights, sounds, smells and traditions; a melting pot of the indulgent decadence of the Babu Culture married with the trend of logical thinking and non-conformism left behind by the earlier Bengal Renaissance.
The Babus were gone though; the creed of offsprings no longer dressed in the pristine mulmul panjabis, finest silk dhotis and Kolhapuri chappals. The attire had been replaced by the smarter and utilitarian suits, the hookahs had given way to more practical cheroots. The city’s cultural heritage was gaining a new edge, a mixture of modernism and vintage style. The gentry of zamindars, aristocrats and blue-blooded royalty had gradually morphed into the new class that had been inexorably touched by the new-wave modern Bengali.
The women kept up with the traditions by dressing for the enterprising races, in their finest clothes; French chiffon, exquisite pearls from Mandalay and the most brilliant diamonds harvested from South Africa. The new generation had much to boast about though; there brilliant entrepreneurs, bureaucrats, journalists, acclaimed economists, film-makers, thinkers, scientists, the finest new-wave poets and painters. Calcutta became the city of mavericks.
Of course, Bombay was thriving as the economic capital of the country too; it was the city of dreams. The tinsel town housing the most impressive and enterprising studios that churned out multi-million buck films each year. The city wasn’t therefore left behind in rise of the Mafioso either, who would become legendary characters in the annals of history. Delhi, on the other hand, was the seat of power for the newly developing giant democracy, but for someone who’d visited all three metropolises, Calcutta was the romantic’s muse. It wasn’t surprising, therefore, that the city regularly pulled in people intent upon unwinding themselves, a respite for tired and weary working class. There were bars, night clubs and smoking joints. Fancy restaurants teeming with eager experimental diners, juxtaposed against the not-so-fortunate lower class. The city was a perfect artiste’s canvas, and often attracted the attention of documentary film makers, avant-garde painters, lyricists and anyone who needed artistic inspirations.
The Royal Calcutta Turf Club was therefore a regular haunt for wannabe journalists who wanted to meet the new face of Calcutta. It was during one such race when John Hourigan realized early on that his charger wasn’t going to make it big, that he met an eager young fellow called Parthasarathi Basu. A quick smoke later, he expressed an appreciation for Hourigan, whom he’d earlier heard recounting the history of the Club to a mesmerized audience, who seemed more enticed because they were hearing the story from a real Anglo-Indian!
Basu was everything that’s characteristic of young people; energetic, fidgety, high on enthusiasm but low on experience. He had big dreamy eyes that shone with overwhelming emotions at the slightest knock of ideas. He listened patiently, taking meticulous notes as Hourigan repeated the story, pausing with dramatic precision at regular intervals. He was aware of the fact that Basu was slurping up everything he’d spoken, and this healed Hourigan’s hurt sense of ego to no end.
“Did you known young man, that King George V and Queen Mary visited the city and attended a race right here, back in January 1912? You won’t find this information anywhere else. It’s because of my father who attended the event himself that we know about the mad frenzy this racecourse saw that day. The huge stands were packed to their utmost capacity, my boy!”
Hourigan felt satisfied as he listened to the steady swish of Basu’s pen moving across his writing pad.
“Their majesties were received with so much of grace; those were different times you see. They came in a big ornate carriage drawn by a pack of six horses, escorted by bodyguards. The retinue of four other carriages followed them. They sat in the royal stand, after being received by Lord and Lady Hardinge, amid the cheering crowds who waved at them happily. Eighteen ran the race and the king’s Cup provided a coveted contest that was won by Galstaun’s Brogue. Johanes C. Galstaun, a leading Armenian property developer and merchant at the time was among the city’s elite, and a Derby frequent. You can trust my memory, son. The second place went to Mr. Goculdas’s Last Call, who lagged by a length and a half. Yes, the very same Goculdas, the famous jute merchants. You should have seen Mr. Galstaun beaming at the crowds as he received the cup from the King and Queen themselves! What a time… what a time!!”
Hourigan couldn’t keep the romantic yearning out of his voice, which grew heavy with nostalgia. By the time the Cup had been handed over to the winner, he’d already acquiesced to the young man’s request of giving him the chance to let him come over to McCluskieganj. Basu said that he felt it would be the perfect place for reminiscing about a long-forgotten past. Hourigan felt the tinge of sincerity in Basu’s words and invited him to stay at their place while he worked on his project. What he didn’t know was that this was going to be the catalytic event that would bring interminable changes into the Hourigan household very soon…
Basu arrived on a Sunday. He loved the laidback air of the colony. Bungalows laden with creepers running along the parapets, gabled windows overlooking quaint little kitchen gardens, front lawns that had lost their former sheen, but nonetheless looked like the perfect pictures of a vanishing time, set against the white exteriors with peeling paint… Porticoes and winding driveways, an occasional gargoyle that spoke of an experimental house owner, who didn’t mind dabbling with bits and pieces of Gothic architecture to spruce up the pristine sharp minimalistic colonial houses. The chirping of birds was typical of a tropical spring punctuated by the promises of a great mango season. The trees were covered in gold and green, and Basu felt that he would fall in love with the place if he didn’t stop his mind from conjuring romantic images. A strange scent wafted through the air, the horizon looked bluer and the hibiscus a darker shade of vermillion.
Elizabeth was out in the front lawn when she saw the handsome young man coming up their driveway, a suitcase in hand. She realized that the man had been watching her too, and the first time their eyes met, Elizabeth felt the sharp gaze penetrating her, and she surprisingly couldn’t take her eyes off those dark brown intelligent eyes. He was the perfect combination of an impish smile, two deep dimples on the cheeks, a mop of tousled brown hair and a tall and sinewy physique.
Elizabeth felt a strange shyness for the first time in her life. She almost floundered with words when the confident young man came up to her, and asked her if she was Elizabeth Hourigan. She dismissed the initial unease, convincing herself that it had more to do with an expectation of some sort of impending changes in their household, for the coming few days. She knew that even though she’d been friends with a lot of boys when she was a little girl, she’d missed a predominant male member who took charge of everything in the family, and the initial awkwardness, she presumed, had more to do with that. With passing time, she got to realize that she was falling for this man who had the grace and enthusiasm to have impressed even Karen Hourigan. Elizabeth could see that both her parents were quite smitten by his charm within a couple of days. That the young man hailed from a renowned and well-to-do family, only added to their pleasure, because he contributed quite generously for the expenses incurred towards his hospitality. It was a welcome arrangement for both parties. The young people didn’t know that this momentary bliss was the beginning of a strange and doomed love story…
The bungalow had the best possible architecture to support and buttress the confused emotions of the young people. Elizabeth, fair-skinned, golden-headed and blue eyed, was a thing of reverence for the young Basu. He’d been educated in one of the premier institutions in Calcutta; his brood of siblings and cousins, all had the benefits of being alumni of a famous Jesuit school in the city. It was one of the best educational institutions in India, at the time. Basu’s easy refinement spoke of his noble upbringing. His father was an industrialist, mother what they used to call a proper homemaker, who had all the bearings of professional greatness, but who chose to be a veiled recluse, following the norms of the ‘sambhranto’ or elite strata of their time.
Basu came from a very protective environment; his parents ferociously defensive of their heritage. The afternoons in McCluskieganj were the best time for the young people to discover more about each other. Elizabeth didn’t have Basu’s finesse; she’d abandoned her plans of studying after appearing for a private matriculation examination, in which she didn’t fare well. Coming to know Basu now, she began resenting herself for being so raw and crude. It was true that she knew a lot about the soil, the kinds of vegetables they could grow and the best times of the year for that. She also knew her way around McCluskieganj and the adjoining areas, like they were the back of her hand. She was practical, and she confided into Basu one afternoon, while they sat on the terrace, looking at the faraway rice fields, that she wasn’t ever considered worthy of the Hourigan name. Maybe, the gender bias wasn’t an entirely Indian thing; no one had ever bothered to ask her if she wanted to continue with her education. She felt that her father even heaved a sigh of relief when she informed them that she’d decided not to study any further. Her mother had steadfastly refused to have another child though, and Elizabeth suspected it had much to do with her maladjustments with her husband. She simply didn’t want to increase her sense of binding responsibilities.
Elizabeth spoke about her childhood for long hours, and Basu would watch her speaking her heart out patiently, occasionally adding a few monosyllabic questions or marks of exclamation. The best thing about him was what Elizabeth thought was his non-judgemental nature. He listened to her, but it never changed his attitude towards her parents; he remained the ever-enthusiastic protégé to John Hourigan, and the extremely well-behaved diner at Karen’s table, who appreciated her hospitality and was effusive of her kitchen skills.
The afternoon that would remain forever with the young people, was buzzing with the usual late-spring sounds; the rustle of new leaves punctuated by the buzz of swarms of insects that hovered around the budding fruit orchards. The distant paddy fields hadn’t yet caught on the edge of gold, the stillness around the Ganj was that of a verdant glade, the sounds of little nothings reverberating in the air. Elizabeth had stepped out of her shoes and was walking barefoot on the red-painted terrace. Basu surmised there was something about her; an anxiety of some sort. He jumped off the parapet where he’d been sitting, smoking a cigarette, and listening to the distant sounds of nowhere.
There was a thunderstorm gathering around the far-horizon. A ‘kalboisakhi’ was approaching. Hourigan Jr. had to go to Calcutta for the Annual General Meeting of the company that had failed to give him returns, but did meticulously send him the sealed and emblazoned white envelopes each year. Those were the invites to the AGM, a perfunctory reminder that he ought to keep his hopes up. Karen was out, the Church was holding a meeting for the coming Lents, and there was planning to be done about the celebrations this little town would see at the end of the tortuous period of abstinence.
Basu approached Elizabeth who seemed lost in thought, and ‘booed’ her from behind. He burst out laughing as he saw the tremors shake her svelte frame, but stopped when he realized that she didn’t turn around. Basu laid a hand softly on her shoulder; she was shaking. He turned her around to see that she was crying.
“What is it? I didn’t mean to scare you so”. He said softly.
Elizabeth wiped her tears, but more continued flowing down her cheeks. Basu clutched her shoulders and repeated his question.
“What is it?”
Elizabeth didn’t reply. Her seventeen-year old face looked younger and her beautiful lashes looked darker. Maybe, it was the approaching storm, that had bathed the environment in shades of monochrome, but Elizabeth stood there, motionless against the bleak background, looking like a Goddess. Basu, for the first time in his life, realized that she was more beautiful than any other girl he’d ever seen. Never before had he in his entire life ever felt as hopelessly in love with a woman, as he felt that afternoon. He wiped her tears yet again, and made an attempt at humouring her.
“Hey, did you read P.B. Shelley?”
He began reciting Love’s Philosophy.
The fountains mingle with the river
And the rivers with the ocean,
The winds of heaven mix for ever
With a sweet emotion;
Having done this so many times, he felt himself falter. The words were no longer alien; they rang with the recognition of understanding, and Basu heard his voice tremble with emotions, the way he’d heard some of his favourite theatre artistes do it.
Nothing in the world is single;
All things by a law divine
In one spirit meet and mingle.
Why not I with thine?—
Maybe it was the wind that was gaining an intensity with each passing moment, but it was becoming increasingly difficult for him to let the words rise up to the air, wisps in the continuum of time-space…
See the mountains kiss high heaven
And the waves clasp one another;
No sister-flower would be forgiven
If it disdained its brother;
Each word lingered and hung around the enchanted couple stranded in the middle of nowhere, beautiful frames captured in photographs for an eternity that was everywhere and nowhere.
And the sunlight clasps the earth
And the moonbeams kiss the sea:
What is all this sweet work worth
If thou kiss not me?”
Basu felt as if a surge of electricity had hit him the moment his fingers had touched Elizabeth’s shoulders. It was a familiar feeling, and yet, very different than what he’d ever felt before. Maybe, it was because he considered her to be different. He quickly withdrew his hands, and began inching towards the heavy metal door that led to the stairs leading downstairs to the first floor. He’d taken enough of liberty, camouflaged behind his poetry, and he felt afraid that his heart would break if he stood there any longer.
He suddenly felt a tug on his arm; it was Elizabeth.
“What would we ever do after your job is done? Partha, I feel afraid to think of coming here, walking barefoot among the tendrils that encroach this terrace the same way you do, to my mind.”
Elizabeth had never called Basu by his first name before, and it felt so strangely comforting to hear her say his name exactly the same way his so many friends called him.
“How did you know that they call me by this name?” Basu realized he was whispering into Elizabeth’s ears, as she stood perilously close for him to avoid.
“Shall I call you by some other name then? Only when you tell me that you do permit me doing so.” Elizabeth’s eyes looked a deeper shade of blue; Basu was sure he could discern a swirling spark of golden in them too.
He hushed her, laying a finger on her rose-bud lips, and heard her moan. She closed her eyes, and kissed his finger, and then she took Basu’s hand to her breast. He could feel her heart thumping beneath the flowery cotton bodice of her dress. The young couple didn’t know which storm would unleash itself more ferociously; the one devouring their heated-up bodies or the one brewing in the horizon, with a promise to cool off the approaching summer heat.
As the first gust of relentless winds hit the stuccoed walls of the bungalow, creating a wind tunnel through the first floor corridor, the world immersed in a shade of darkness punctuated by the swaying lace curtains. The frenzy of the thunderstorm made it difficult to shut the heavy wooden windows that were running askew, slamming shut and creaking open, wreaking havoc, just the same as the emotions were doing in the couple’s hearts. They had a hard time securing all the unruly doors and windows, and when they did, they realized they had already been made sogging wet by the forceful and torrential sheets of rain, that kept on changing directions with the fiery gusts of winds.
As the last of the sounds of the outside world had been shut off, Elizabeth felt that she could hear her own heartbeats. She realized she felt strange and queasy with anticipation. Basu pulled her to himself, their wet forms heating up the soaking clothes that came off pretty soon. The first time Basu’s fingers brushed past her nipples, Elizabeth shivered, and led him to the bed. She felt the heat of his tongue as his mouth devoured her breasts, his teeth doing wonderful things to them.
Elizabeth lost her virginity to Basu, with tears of joy streaking her sweaty face. Long after the rhythmic swaying had ceased, they lay in each other’s arms, uttering sweet nothings and looking into each other’s eyes. The afternoon had melted and given way to an inky dark evening. The nature seemed to be rejoicing with greenery, having had her the first brush with the rains for the year, a promise of fecundity hanging in the distant sounds of crickets and the toll of bells at the Church.
Elizabeth knew that Basu meant it when he’d whispered ‘Love you, Darling’ into her ears over and over, his moans making his voice sound slurry. She knew that they both had a future together, or why would God throw someone as improbable as Basu in her path? As the excitement ceased, her apprehensions returned.
She asked Basu the same question. What were they supposed to do once he was done with his story?
Basu laughed, as he kissed her on the forehead, and told her that he was a fugitive. He was escaping the life his family was steadfastly trying to impose upon him. He didn’t want to go to England, nor did he want to join the Civil Services like his father had done. He intended to work for the common people, the poor and the destitute. He teased Elizabeth by recounting how deviously he’d planned to stay back in McCluskieganj, so that he could seduce the lamb of his dreams. He assured her that she shouldn’t worry about anything; he’d approach his parents and tell them very clearly that he intended to marry Elizabeth, and that he also wanted to pursue his journalism more seriously.
Elizabeth asked him if he didn’t find himself to be too upright and prone to making his family unhappy with all his future decisions. She immediately knew that it was a wrong question that she shouldn’t have asked. His eyes grew darker, and he said that the day had been too beautiful to be signed off with such bad confessions. He said he’d tell her everything; she needed to acknowledge that they had a lifetime for questions and answers like these!
“I’m an atheist, my dear Elizabeth. I don’t hope for salvation by worshipping such a God who lets people be starving, be terminally ill and be perennially oppressed. He who lets his so-called children die off like winter wheat, without bothering to hear their pleas… I don’t believe in such a God. We don’t believe in such a God!”
Elizabeth was nuzzling against Basu’s chest, her warm body resting against his. The fast-approaching summer heat sent gusts of unruly winds down the long corridors of the house. Basu was finding the passages to be the vestiges connecting a bygone era with a new present. The opulent finesse had been gradually taken over by a decadent legacy, as if invisible cobwebs had spun themselves around the place. John Hourigan had indicated to him in no subtle terms that he intended to marry off his daughter to the first man that came asking for her hand. Basu didn’t know whether Elizabeth’s parents knew anything about their relationship, but they would have to be blind to not recognise the glow in her fair skin, the glow of a newly deflowered virgin who had taken to understanding the subtle art of lovemaking and was being unapologetically proactive in the process.
Moreover, they had been getting more and more involved with outside activities leaving the young couple with a chance of getting cosy. It wasn’t long before Basu realized he had extinguished all his reasons of staying back at the quaint little colony. All good things come to an end and his stay at McCluskieganj was drawing to an end too. The thoughts of getting separated from each other began affecting the young people, so that they tried stealing away each moment to invest into their own little fantasies; each moment they stole from the cruel grasps of time were poetic and lyrical. To assure one’s love about a distant plan called marriage was one thing, and to encounter the reality headlong, and to pave the path to that ultimate goal was entirely another thing.
Basu knew that he’d already irked his family enough with his decisions to be himself. He didn’t join the civil services, he didn’t practise law at the High Court, and he had refused to get hitched to his father’s business associate’s daughter. To make things even worse, he didn’t show even the faintest bit of interest in his family business. It, according to him, reeked of the guilt of profiteering and he couldn’t bring himself to earn blood money like many others were.
The clash of principles had been there for a long, long time…
Basu found his father to be an extremely good businessman who had the vision and foresight for making profits. As a child, he’d often been to some tea estates where his father held gargantuan shares. He would be in awe of such beauty that nature offered amid the gentle slopes, but he’d be surprised when he saw children his age shirking away from his company. Initially, this would disturb him, and befuddle his little brain for hours. He had such nice shoes, such smart dresses, such good manners and so many toys… It took him a couple of visits to realize that the very things he thought, would attract these children to be friends with him, were basically the ones that stopped them. They were hesitant, they didn’t know how to make friends with someone who was dressed so impressively and so ‘Englishly’. They were not only hesitant, they were afraid. Afraid of his attire? It was so perplexing for the little boy of five, that he felt really sad. This wasn’t something he had expected.
It took him very little time to realize the truth though, bright as he was, as a child. People wearing English clothes had exploited them for so long that they had grown to be distrusting of anyone who donned the kind of attire. It was difficult and utterly distressing for a child to hear about how workers had been flogged mercilessly, and it was such a vivid picture ion the fertile mind of the child that he grew up believing that each grain of food he ate, had been brought to his plate by depriving someone else. The lush greenery around the tea gardens took on a red edge for him since then. It wasn’t therefore a surprise when his parents found him wearing someone’s old and tattered clothes one day, his English clothes having been carelessly strewn around for people who cared to put them to use. Basu was so happy that he was looking like all the other children, that he didn’t recognise the storm of shame and disappointment creep into his father’s eyes that day. He soon enough decided that he’d have to give to his son, what he’d never be able to, if he allowed him to stay him at home. His wife, Mahamaya was simply too loose and loving with their son, who needed discipline more than anything else, Basu Sr. decided.
Thus, Parthasarathi Basu was sent off to a boarding school in _ when he was just seven years old.
Author: DEBASREE BANERJE , 36.
Fry your bRaInS (Nuts)
Good Morning and welcome to your favourite Talk Show, ‘FRY YOUR BRAINS’. Here’s a caution notice before we start: Going by your enormous positive feedback, our fledgling brainchild that’s just three episodes old, has started dreaming of progressing from BRAINS to NUTS. Ouch!
By the way, after decades of whining about ‘LIBERALIZATION’ and its effects, we still allude to the universal three letter word by... humping, thumping, romping, pumping, jumping…. I say, why the need for substitution? But I’m no Trump, and I ain’t referring to a certain Mr. Trump who goes around sharing his first name with a ducky that mostly roams about without pant bottoms. Arghh!!!
Not getting deviated though, I’m no Trump ‘Card’ to change the course of such games. Therefore, with no one to emancipate my ‘no substitution’ cause, the sweetest three letter darling is in dire identity crisis. Do it, but don’t spell it!
Ending such misery calls for a new metaphor, something not so taboo; a little civilized, something you could refer to without making your boss twitch in his pants. Sorry! The last part was unintentional.
Read somewhere though, that baseball is a good enough metaphor; let’s see how… 1-2-3 Innings, batters that don’t reach base, oops! Double play, bagger, wide-ones, and…. hole. Shit, it’s getting kind of gross with balls and holes…. So, let’s search for other possibilities.
If everything’s already been considered fair in love and war, the latter wouldn’t be an inept metaphor either. Cannonballs, missiles, blockade, booby trap, frontal assault, rear assault, sack, pole, pike, breastwork, murder hole…. The possibilities are endless, yet might make people squirm around you (pronounced as EEW!). So, let’s drop that too; but secretly, whoever knew that war would be as good a metaphor for love…. making!
Well, how about Pizza then? Got that on the internet too. Let’s say, she’s game as a pizza. Believes in sharing, rather than ugly competition like baseball…. Enjoy the cheesiness…. (ahem), and share the pleasure and enjoyment…. That’d be fine by all means, but then, I might as well hang myself, with all the feminists prowling around….
But then, I heard them cackle when a son-of---- Sorry! For getting too carried away by my emotions… I heard self-proclaimed women’s rights activists cackling when an anti-male rights activist casually commented that ‘Men should be allowed to cross-dress and wear skirts; it would be easier for them’. Now, isn’t that sexist?
But society is comprised of a bunch of morally compromised hypocrites. Referring to sex as in gender is fine by us, but referring to sex for sex is bad. How on earth did the concept of gender even come without the general premise of sex as sex as in sex, of sex and for sex? Coming to think of it, why do we say son-of-a----? You know what….
But my question is… Why not daughter-of-someone?
I know though, that society considers this the most sexually balanced form of verbal abuse. How excellent! But that hardly changes the interminable problem that has been roasting me, as in seething with anger…. So, I guess it’s high time we drop it. Sleep tight and hope someone has a flash of serendipity in this regard…. As for now, FRY YOUR BRAINS is still all about brains, because the other option would be too ’sex’ist!
The figure ′ 2020′. Could it get any more lyrical, any more symmetrical and any more aesthetic? As the new dawn on 2020 brightened the horizons beyond the inky blue heavens, humankind arose out of their early-morning slumber in reprieve of the throes of harsh reality clutching at their bloodied fates and breasts. It was conceived of as a harbinger of good luck!
And yet, the little inconspicuous pieces of news that hitherto failed to make headlines, suddenly bared their ghastly teeth, tearing away the picture of hope into innumerable shreds of tattered and disjointed ambitions and dreams.
Thus ended the epiphany of another great year of patting ourselves on our backs, and keeping repeating that there still was time to indulge, overindulge, in fact, with luxury splurges, on yet another mink coat, another Hermes bag, or another yacht cruise on the Bosphorus.
For me though, the year began with a generous smattering of spiritualism, having attended a long-awaited session, courtesy, ‘Swami Vivekanananda Vani Prachar Samity’, Chicago. The date was 02.02.2020, another numerologically significant palindrome, which also totalled to an eight, indicating a full closure numerologically. There were plans of travelling around the world, publishing my first novel, meeting my parents after nearly a year, taking my son places, including to the zoo, and creating an author account on FB, being more active on Insta and Twitter.
It was a long ‘to-do’ list, where there were relentless and unpunctuated chains of events planned.
Amid all those, there were unsettled scores, unspoken apologies, disrepaired housework, that had remained wanting attention for a very long time, and a long list of friends who’d appear in my dreams periodically and persistently. All those things had taken a sabbatical from my list of priorities, having been pushed down and further down, replaced with other important things.
And then, came the Pandemic, world-wide panic and forced lockdown. No longer required to go to work regularly, no longer planning my budget for the next international travel, no more to-do lists coming to fruition, life came to a stand-still. Or apparently so, at first glance. But all the left-over housework began coming to fruition, all torn buttons got sewn, all remaining edits of the manuscript gradually done, even the book getting published at last, after six years of ponderance and procrastination. Communication and bonding with my son became a reality, relationship with in-laws improved, at least, opened up after nearly ten years of staying together. The household reclaimed some of its lost sheen, and there was a sudden surge of free-time to exercise, meditate and eat healthy.
A month into the lockdown, I began searching frantically for a long-lost friend, who’d once proposed to me, asking to be his wife, and I’d laughed off this sudden revelation as a spat of infatuation. And then, he simply plugged hismelf out of all social circles, removing all contact with anyone who could be in touch with me. Somehow, it struck me that maybe all those nightmares about an unfulfilled childhood promise might have been a Freudian translation of vestiges of my own guilt. It wasn’t because I didn’t accept his proposal; it was rather because I’d never found time to look for him in the intervening period of ten years!
And then, all the extra time on my hands, sans the distractions of social media, resulted in a really judicious and honest desire to find him, which I did, much like a long-forgotten favourite teacher, an old aunt who celebrated her ninetieth birthday, a poor relative who’d asked me for a loan, and a local network of distribution of food packets to the under-privileged. I wondered how the same twenty-four hours gave me all the opportunity now, bereft of constant pressure to prove myself competent enough for the rat race I’d been running for years now.
Family dinners, phone conversations, opinions on social causes, and ruminations about doing what I do best; all the things suddenly gained back the lustre they had lost over a prolonged spate of overexpecting from myself.
Time has come to a point where I, like most other millennials, have lost the urge to portray myself as someone infallible, and insusceptible to human afflictions. It has started to feel like exposing one’s vulnerability to near and dear ones, is okay. To ask for help, and speak about one’s insecurities is fine enough, and to cry in front of friends is fair enough. Visiting parents suddenly feels like one of the most important things to do after the nightmare is over, but trying to listen to all those unsaid words over the long telephonic conversations, appears even more important. Physical presence can’t make up for mental absence, and vice-versa, but maybe, mental presence surpasses the importance of physical availability. Priority lists look like they’re to be torn down completely and be written down afresh. Spending time with friends, laughing and sharing jokes, conversing with one’s own body, eating healthy and re-visiting the notions of modernization... the list is endless.
1. Someone once said that difficult times bring out the best in people. I realise that’s because the mind is concentrated on trying to eradicate the cause of difficulty, without meandering to more lucrative and glitzy avenues.
2. The human attributes of love, faith, generosity and hope have been emphasized for so long. But it was only during this period that I realized even if the candles of love, faith and generosity are extinguished by wisps of hatred, disillusionment and selfishness, keep stoking the fire of hope. It can re-light the other three.
3. Scriptures say that of all the noble virtues, patience is the greatest. The unending period of contemplation has taught me to rely on the power of time. This impossible undulation on the fabric of space-time continuum is also bound to pass. All we need is to be patient and to listen to our inner silence.
It’s mid-July, and we’re already midway through the year 2020, and we still don’t know much about the little RNA tweak, and the cytokine storms that brought upon us this period of idyll. What we do know is that humanity will have to find it’s way amid the quagmire of problems. Running a race was always our choice, but running in this hurdle race is our compulsion. Emerging a winner or a loser, would again be our choice, laced with luck. If we don’t have a hand in the latter factor, let’s at least score a hundred for our choice.
2021 would be ushering humankind into a new realm of understanding, that would compel us to make the choice between hope and despair, between quick-results and patience. It would also expect us, as a sentient species to be more responsible about our options, and be more observant of our history. The year could lead us to a new way of life, where even the vainest of us could finally come to terms with the common uncertainty of our own mortality. Consumerism could be modified to a degree where we could begin by reiterating about our true place in the complex ecological chain.
2021 would be the dawn of A NEW AGE OF MINDFULNESS, REFLECTION, INTROSPECTION, HUMILITY, BENEVOLENCE AND KINDNESS, not because we embrace these out of choice, but because all other choices have been snatched out of our hands.
2021 would be the harbinger of a new chapter in the annals of humankind’s history.
Writing merely good plotlines isn't enough; a writer should also create a beautiful timeline for themself.
Did you notice that every sunrise, every sunset, every birdsong and every day you cooked porridge was different? Did you hope for a better day after a good one and a bad one? Did you hope for difference? Did you hope for a good sleep after having a nightmare? Did you enjoy a burger and fries on weekend trips to the city? Did you wish for the harsh winters to thaw and break out into a beautiful spring? Did you ever complain to your mother that how you wished she cooked something different?
Did you regret looking at the rainbow or a prism dispersing light into a myriad of hues? Did you regret not having been born blind or deaf, because you had to see or hear so many differences?
Did you regret having too many dresses in your wardrobe, or having different flavours of candies in your jar?
If you didn’t regret any of these, then you ought to show the same enthusiasm for differences in every aspect. Opinions, ideas, desires, dreams, hopes, beliefs, appearances, skin colour, hair type, body type, sexuality, voice quality, gender, race, caste, creed, nationality, species, habits, interests, hobbies, passions... everything. Why do you feel uncomfortable with these differences then? Would the world be a better place if everyone looked, spoke, dressed, ate, slept, played and loved like you?
Why limit the perspective to a single aspect? Why keep pitting science against theism? Why keep resisting capitalism, communism, leftism, rightism, centrism, or any ‘ism’? Why not move beyond the confines of all ’ism’s?
Love is nothing but overcoming the notions of differences, and embracing an ‘ism’ free view. Love is about erasing all notions engraved in our minds. Begin with self-love, and embrace your ingenuity and uniqueness. Feel special, make others feel special, because they are. Tell people it’s okay not to have great body, a pretty face or a clear skin and good hair. Tell them it doesn’t define the person that they are. Don’t lie and tell everyone they look good; rather teach them to feel good and do good.
Keep hoping, because hoping is the most potent way to expect and look forward to differences.
The crisp covers smelled of flowers and vineyards, summery cool, or wintry hot; I wasn’t sure. Last night had been heaven! Rhetorically and literally! What could heaven be, if not heavenly? I look at myself; the glint of light diffusing into a riot of colours, hitting the diamond on my navel ring. My breasts look so round and white; inviting...
I look at myself again. My body looks like it has been made instagram-worthy through the choicest filters, just like the Victoria’s Secret angels. No... they are too bronzed up; I think I look more like Marylin Monroe in her classic portfolio, or like Dita Von Teese, looking impeccable in her MAC cerise lip colour.
Did I do it with a God? A GOD? Did Gods make you pregnant? Well, Greek Gods did. I remember! Who knows? Even others might. But this wasn’t the problem at hand. The thing that bugs me is that I was supposed to make the God laugh. It was a wild proposal, but I’d accepted it. Strangely, the last drink I’d had in the mortal world was inside this fancy Night Club called ‘Rag-na-Rok’, a homophone for Ragnarök, I guessed. What a wild combination of Nordic catastophe and Greek tragedy!
Yeah, I’m well-read. Comparative Literature, that is! But why in three worlds would He want me to make him laugh?
“So, you didn’t keep your deal yesterday. It’s about time.”
I was shaken by the low and grumbling voice that spoke from somewhere very near me. Swiftly turning around, I tried to pull the covers around myself, as I couldn’t see my clothes.
“Oh... don’t even bother.” He said, his cerise robes billowing around him, making him appear bigger and mightier than I could remember him from last night.
“I... I thought we had quite a few laughs, genuine ones yesterday night.”
I’m stammering, I realize.
“No cheating! I see you’re a wily little woman, who tries to fleece even a God, of his fair share of pleasures.”
I noticed a lurching ombre note in his eyes; I hadn’t noticed that his grey-blue eyes had specks of red fire dancing in the irises. I realized this wasn’t a game anymore. Maybe the meth and the vodka had really worn off, and I wasn’t dreaming any longer. This had by far been the best of dreams, thus far.
“Oh... I see. You’re thinking this is another of your drug-inspired dreams, right? No, my dear. It isn’t.”
“But why should you ask a mortal like me to make you laugh? I don’t understand. If an perpetuity of inebriation hasn’t been able to do it, how could I, a mere woman do that?”
“Comparative literature? yeah? Ever heard the word ‘microcosm’? I know... I know... Robe-donning tousled haired Greek Gods aren’t so ignorant either. An eternity is a long time to make wise men out of even the king of fools. ‘The Hunchback of Notredame, Victor Hugo’. The term wasn’t used for denoting a fool, really, but mine was rhetorical. So, I was reiterating on the concept of microcosm. We all live in our own microcosm. We know the room, the home, the street, the planet and even the universe, to the best of our own knowledge and comprehension. So, why should it bother you if I wasn’t able to laugh with all the grape-juice down my throat? You should concentrate on winning the bet with the version of me, you find standing in front of you, right here, and now.”
“Interesting, but why should I even try doing that?” I ask haughtily.
“Because you know the challenge. You die if you lose.”
“And you die if I win?” I asked.
“Gods don’t die. I will come to inebriate you again. Maybe as someone different, not as the cool looking dude with rippling muscles and a ‘Godesque’ physique.” Dionysus was confident.
I summoned my thoughts with every ounce of strength left in me. The last night must have been real rough, because I was feeling drowned and unable to breathe. An all-consuming pain was wracking through my body, but I couldn’t look elsewhere. Those eyes, those vampiric eyes were sapping me of my vitality. I had to act fast, or I’d wind up dead.
Dio...ny...sian laughter....was the pre...cur...sor of Greek tragedies... The all-con...suming and... all-devour...ing laugh...ter. But pi..tted against the Apollonean laughter....what... did... Nietzsche say? Pitted against A...po...llo...ne...an laugh....ter, it lost its...... sheen. Because Apollonean laughter was the....harbinger of all things bright, like...Homeric epics, the blooming flowers....
“You’re trying to dupe me? After all the love I showed towards you?” The flash of anger in his voice was evident. “I’m going to come after you, I’ll destroy you....destroy you....You’re dead....cold and dead... finished.” And then Dionysus began laughing. It was unbearable... the grumbling, growling, chilling rapacious laughter froze my blood in my veins. A cold wave ran down my spine.
And then, I laugh along... Something strange is happening...
“I win. Some other day, dear God! Goodbye!”
As I come back to my senses, I see the doctor who’s been giving me CPR.
“Wh...what happened?” I ask, trying to get up, but am eased down.
“Your fatal cocktail... or... near-fatal cocktail almost did it. We lost you. Almost, but that was until you began laughing.”
I remembered Dionysus. He’d come looking for me, he said. I wouldn’t let him win his bet. Thanos was better, but before that, Gelos needed some dedicated time from me.
Broken life could be bridged, after all. I’d shunned happiness that had come my way. But when life gave you lemons, you made lemonade.
Theoretically, literally, philosophically and rhetorically...
I whispered to myself.
‘Cuisine de l’amour’
The racks of magazines run high along the wall, stacked beyond the brilliant diamond cut Murata glass panes. It is wonderful to know that Louise still cares to collect all the magazines and books that have my name printed anywhere in it. Thirty-seven years, and the woman still has the patience! Being a writer had always been my dream, and I had been successful through my childhood and college years, carving a niche for myself among the few avid readers who thought it worthwhile to go through the school magazine and the ‘University Endeavour’ later on. As I sit in my study, I still wonder if that evening of forty-four years ago, was really a flash of pre-ordained destiny that shaped me through the years…. “Nothing is worthwhile if it doesn’t have the little touch of love in it”. Getting acquainted with the highs and lows of cooking, the domestic and commercial scenario, understanding that some takeaways provide better food than renowned fine diners, except for the ambience; I feel all those piles of glossy covers losing their sheen. It's not that I disrespect culinary perfection; it almost is a chef's way of expressing himself on the plate, but the customer shouldn't feel stifled by the overwhelming stringency in maintaining set-patterns. I've known billionaires who wanted to be served an exquisite 'Lobster Frittata' on a golden platter, but wanted to stick their fingers into the omelette and feel the smoothness before it tickled their taste buds. I wouldn't want to name him, but a world-famous Film Director once told me that man always has this strange instinct to return to his primal state, and when he felt the urge, he found extreme comfort in dipping bagel in his champagne and eating it just like that! I was thirty-seven at the time and considered his notion not only disillusioning but murderous, but I can see my ancestors dipping their breads in ale and honey not more than three hundred years ago! What's astonishing is that I don't see any abnormality in that picture, though conformists might find it revolting.
There comes a point in the life when a man gets thoroughly tired of all innuendoes of self-admiration and finds his niche of personal solace in reminiscing. Ruminating on the life he has led, feeding on his inner proclivities that were lost along most part of his life, because he was in the mill to compete, earn, be respectable and be famous. The last two hardly come to most men but I was lucky, and it was through running along such worldly ways that I discovered that ‘The Mother’s Kitchen is the Best’, for no amount of Michelin Stars can overpower the flow of love that pours out there.
Ruminating…. Feeding…. My God! I’ve been so embroiled in my profession that I can hardly think of any words that aren’t associated with eating, much the same way as the hungry pauper by the sidewalk. I cannot but profoundly profess my adulation for Mahatma Gandhi who summed up the experiences of my life and that of most culinary connoisseurs, sommeliers and critics in his very simple words, “There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread”; and when they tear away at the food like animals, those actions are beyond confines of refinement and aristocracy, but replete with unsurpassable interest in 'the food'! Just it!
This is probably my last article and I might cause a giant uproar in the world of hospitality. Hence did I take the liberty of letting out the real ‘me’ at sixty-five, because it would be sad not to let the world know. Standards were set for the benefit of extracting the best out of everything, but conformance has subdued the emotional aspects of the ‘maker’ and the ‘receiver’, thus clouding the actual satisfaction that a youth returning home from war, finds in discovering everything that naturally came to him as a child, when he didn’t have standards to conform to. But more painful would it be if I didn’t substantiate my experiences with the story of Monsieur Busset…..
I was twenty-one and second year through my journalism. Mr. Jonas, a rich patron of our School had taken me as a protégé, and had decided that it was time to experience a little real world journalism. I must say on hindsight, that the old man had a tilt towards glorifying tragedy, because he said that a writer who didn’t write for a cause was better off dead. We were going to the 'Cuisine de l'amour' for Pierre Busset's own private party, and it sent a shiver through my spine. Pierre Busset had been the then biggest name in the hospitality business and the leading dailies often ran pictures of him, surrounded by the who's who of the city's elite circuit. He had been among the twentieth century pioneers who introduced 'fine dining' to Americans; not that the good Swiss hadn't already embarked on the noble venture long back, but the war had brought in a surge of dreamers to America, who had married the best of both worlds to create a mélange of newfound thinking and old world traditions. I was informed that it was his daughter's birthday, and his chain of restaurants took the opportunity to celebrate the occasion each year. I wondered why Busset had never been in news for these gala celebrations. 'Princess', he called his daughter; no wonder I thought.
Speaking out my thoughts aloud, I realized that Mr. Jonas had a wry smile pasted on his lips. He said that Princess was rightfully called so, because each day she had a party thrown to her, and the gala ones on her birthday. The old man then whispered into my ear that it was going to be an evening I would cherish forever. I wonder if such accurate predictions were the side effects of a head full of silver hair.
‘Buena venue’, the doorman in his white and red uniform with golden edges nodded politely. I could see that the sign read ‘Closed’ outside; it was indeed a private party for a select few. We were ushered in by a portly gentleman with pink cheeks, and the ambience spoke of general festivity with festoons doing their rounds high up along the mahogany lined walls and confetti flowing in abundance. It was beautiful, as we were led to our table, I whispered into Mr. Jonas’ ear: “Looks like we are the only guests to have arrived”. He led an assuring hand on my shoulder and spoke about the virtue of patience. I looked around to see that none of the tables except ours had been laid; no cutlery, no glasses and no fine China. Strange, it seemed, nevertheless, I was an amateur trying to assess the depths and finesse of French hospitality....
The musicians were poised on their regal perches up the curving balconies on both sides of the majestic staircase that ran beside the two inconspicuous elevator doors that led up to the private dining rooms and conference halls. I had heard that Monsieur Busset’s vision had elevated the 'Cuisine de l'amour' to have a terrace swimming pool and the best open air bar in the world, besides having an adjoining golf course and a full backyard bistro outlet. Busset had created this restaurant according to his own vision of mixing the apex fine dining options with the best possible entertainment. He had thought of every possible option which one of the guests might feel like indulging in, besides having his ‘food’. The renowned critics who admired him for his ‘legendary outlook’ had been the ones to bitterly denounce his ‘eccentricity’ not more than two decades back. Nevertheless, I was drawn out of my reverie by the arrival of our host, Monsieur Busset. He was his usual self, no tuxedo, not even a dinner jacket; just his white shirt, and the linen trouser held up by steel suspenders.
Monsieur Busset let himself into one of the chairs and the Garçon hovered in like an Angel with his quintessential gold plated tray, ready to deliver the finest of alcoholic beverages at our behest. Being a novice that I was at the time, I haven’t been able to remember Monsieur Busset’s recommendation, but I would say that the taste of the brilliant red liquid lingers on to my senses even after the passage of four decades. Mr. Jonas seemed to be on extremely amiable terms with him, and I decided that the two of them should be left off for a little private tête-à-tête. I sought excuse and found my way out into the gardens, towards the golf course and would never know how much time I had spent admiring Monsieur Busset’s resources, but our portly usher tugged at my arm suddenly. The guests had arrived. I was instantly taken with the anxiety of looking shabby among all those finely decked celebrities, but was taken aback upon seeing many little heads, mostly dwarfed amid the high backed dining chairs. Along the far walls, sat more than thirty old people, some hardly comprehending their surroundings and a few hardly moving in their wheelchairs. We were the best dressed guests for the evening! My eyes searched for Mr. Jonas, but I found Monsieur Busset smiling at me.
The orchestra struck on its chord, embarking on a royal prelude. It was ‘service à la russe’ for our table whereas ‘á la française’ for the rest tables. Each of the elderly people was being attended upon by individual attendants, who pulled little carts laden with steaming bowls and little cloches. I was left open-eyed at the scene around me; lots of questions were swimming in my mind, with no answers; nevertheless, it did little to mar my interests in the amuse bouche of Sevruga Caviar topped on a golden triangle of herbed Bruschetta. What came next was a wonderful concoction so exquisite in its appearance and flavour that it was the first thing I researched on, after exiting the restaurant that night. I came to know that it was cold borscht blended with sour cream and chives. The entry of an exotic pan seared timbale hurled me into the close-eyed stage of gastronomic admiration. What it was stuffed of, I later learnt was the most tender turtle meat, stewed in onions, bacon and cayenne pepper. The courses that followed shall be vague to my memory because I hadn’t yet started on my journey of honing the palette or remembering complicated French terms, but the dinner must have consisted of at least twenty-one courses, none offering anything less than the very best. What keeps on lingering in my memory are my taste buds getting tingled by the perfect little serving of sirloin, the pâté de Foie Gras, the intervention of wonderful sorbets, the oversized portion of Waldorf Pudding, and watching Monsieur Busset steering himself through the maze of his unusual assortment of guests. What sticks vividly to my grey cells though, is my memory of the old and infirm people spreading drool all over the place, the children digging into the food with their little fingers, and all the happy chirping.
As I sat lounging in one of the private rooms upstairs, still relishing this memorable dinner, I wondered where Princess was. My naiveté and eagerness to indulge in gastronomic endeavours had completely erased the fact from my mind that I had never once seen or heard of her. I ventured out to find Mr. Jonas standing by the empty seats of the musicians, a rueful expression pasted on his countenance. I followed the direction of his eyes and found Monsieur Busset standing by a wheelchair bound woman, a serving cart pulled close to the duo. He was feeding spoonfuls of some bland soupy concoction, speaking softly to the woman, who stared vacantly at the remains of the party that had taken place. Much of what she was being fed dribbled down her chin, and Monsieur Busset gently wiped it off her collar and front. Mr. Jonas indicated me not to break the silence.
When we had emerged out into the world beyond the culinary doors, Mr. Jonas began recounting a story that I have remembered. Pierre Busset had been drafted into the War that had left millions shattered, and he among them. Marie, his wife, the woman we had seen, was pregnant at the time, with their first child, and her husband had been relieved when he was discharged due to war injuries to come home before his wife’s delivery. What he didn’t know was that the Germans had already been there, robbing every granary on their way, setting fire to what they couldn’t take. When he arrived, the women told him that Marie was already into labour since the last two days; it was one of the most difficult labours that ever were to be. She had gone into premature labour having been starved for most part of the last fortnight, and had been delirious speaking about some grand feast, that never was to come. She had never been the same after the incident, her brains all addled up with oxygen deprivation.
“But what of Princess?” I asked.
“Busset never became a father; the little princess was still-born. Deprived of nutrition, the midwife said. In due course the war ended, and being from nobility, the Bussets were given back much of their estate and property, but he didn’t want to stay back there. Moved into America, and set upon arranging grand feasts for everyone, each day. Thus begun his journey into hospitality; but each day he feeds all those orphans and old people, celebrating his Princess’ ‘Birthday’ each year within a close circuit of friends. No publicity; just for Marie, as long as she keeps on hanging to life in her illusionary world”.
The words suddenly cut through the stillness of the night, “Nothing is worthwhile if it doesn’t have the little touch of love in it”. Monsieur Busset had toppled all orthodoxy to pour in feelings into his profession, and the Michelin Stars had followed him. It was not his quest for perfection; it was his quest for ‘Happiness’.
Marie died a few months later, and Busset followed her shortly; the chain of restaurants were taken over by other ‘Star’ aspirants, but this one evening had shaped my life by bringing forth my actual passion, the form of writing I would love to do, writing about food and analyzing the amount of love I felt over the endeavour of perfection each time I visited some restaurant, and I shall remember a small one on the corner of a street in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk, that sells excellent street food. I hope my article would help etch out the passion in at least another youth, and would help all the best restaurateurs be more tolerant of love and fingers over cutlery and Bone China.
having been taught
to question everything,
when belief was all that was needed...
Les Années Folles
The words swirled around like smoke, hung for a minute and dissolved into the sunlight, beams of which came streaming in through the dilapidated windows, the threadbare curtains no better than them. I sat up clutching my head. It hurt, but I was myself to blame. The firewater had done it.
As I stretched myself, my feet taking a firm grip of the wooden floor, giggles erupted, and I remembered I wasn’t wearing any clothes. It was Francine and her little friend, Marie.
“What’s there to laugh about?” I retorted.
Marie kept giggling, but Francine came forward, and handed me my trousers.
“She says you looked huge yesterday, and now, it’s like a schoolboy’s.” Francine was nonchalant as she nodded towards Marie, who ran off, a midget of a girl. I remembered caressing her petite frame and perky breasts the last night. Francine had given me the best times of my life, and these women deserved a better place than in the coop at the ‘Maison d’abattage’. I sometimes bought gifts for them, but ended up drinking more liquor than what I paid. Francine covered up for me, always. Dutifully, and with love. This was a different kind of love, unlike what I write about.
Francine often asks me when I’m going to complete my debut novel about a girl named Chloé, who chose to walk her own walk in the City of Love, amid the tumult of the Great War and after it. Her gradual admission to Gertrude Stein’s Les Années Folles. That was my dream project; I knew how Chloé looked, how she smelled, the colour of her hair, and the valley of her breasts. But she somehow eluded me after I’d completed the first chapter with flourish. Chloé of my dreams was being scattered to the winds, by the damn harshness of life.
Taking her place was Madame La Motte, whose sprawling mansion and serpentine passages were described in my twenty-second novel the same way as I’ve described the nooks and crannies of the bodies of my heroines. To think that the thin pages would reek with the stench of sweat, sex and semen, in a few days, was the only trophy I expected for my work. I imagined men sweating, holding my book in their hand, the other one busy in its own right.
The worn-out coat was stinking of my own sweat; I realized I hadn’t washed it in a while. There were stains left behind by a blob of egg-yolk the last time I’d eaten an egg. It must have been weeks ago. A wry smile crossed my face, as I looked into the mirror. Here was a lost man, a writer who wanted to be honest and ingenious and meaningful, but who was broke, vulnerable and suffered from a drinking problem, barely managing to scrape a living out of his filthy profession of writing erotica. Only that I knew this was trash. I could die before I even called myself a writer, but this wasn’t me.
I’d evaded the grumpy landlady for three nights in a row, but this was a Saturday night, and Francine would have other appointments. I saw my knuckles growing white, even as I considered her laying in someone else’s arms.
Calm… steady… This wasn’t a relationship that required possessiveness.
I imagined Marie’s nipples touch my lips, as she slithered all over me, while Francine kept doing incredible things to me…
Madame Camille La Motte peeked into the chamber where she’d often seen Hans the Boor making love to La Petite. She seethed as she saw them moving in unison; it killed her inside. The shiny black skin glistening with sweat, the soft moans escaping the girl’s throat, and the creaking noise of the wooden cot. La Motte almost hoped that the woodwork gave way and it splintered to a thousand pieces. But it was not to be; the old wood was as stubborn as Hans. The giant hands that caressed the white porcelain skin of Celia’s bosom, the rapidly rising tempo… Madame La Motte almost bit her tongue to repress a moan of pleasure herself. She felt wet. The bitch, this woman Celia; she had to go. Hans had spurned Camille for her.
A niece of her late husband’s, Celia had taken to the aristocratic bearings pretty fast. Nobody could say that she was a parasite who thrived on Jean’s fortune, which he’d bequeathed to his young niece. Pretty and lascivious. La Motte detested every bit of the young woman; she felt jealous of her beauty, her youth and her innocent demeanour. She despised the way she acted in front of others, deliberately belittling her. It was strange that nobody could discern the little mixture of meanness in her large eyes. Camille fumed.
She walked fast, past the study on the ground floor, where she saw Ines dusting. She ran fast, indignation boiling her blood, and desire churning her inside. She’d exact her revenge in the most gruesome way possible. She went to her bedroom, pulled shut the curtains, slammed the heavy door, and thrust in a finger. An animal scream escaped her mouth; her scream was as savage as the orgasm that racked her body. Then she fell down in a heap.
The silence engulfing the Vallée Suisse was deafening. It was a bad time for libertines, the German propaganda said. Hitler had in Mein Kampf, spoken about the prostitution as the primary cause of moral and physical corruption of society and the people, and yet, Germany, during the Third Reich period, had flourished in the trade much more than earlier times. Salons had sprung up at different places. The French were so ill-equipped for the Second War that when Germany took over Paris, the women, who’d come up front, having lost their fathers, brothers, husbands and sons, to the earlier war, got into the line that grew longer each day. This looked like it had become a pastime for women who wanted their fathers back from the jail, or wanted a job for their crippled husbands.
Among them, the city pulsated and thrived; as it had done after the First War, drawing in a new horde of writers, who quickly established the name of this city once again, this time in the field of modern American literature, and in new forms of art. Along with it came the liberalisation of sexuality. Stein herself stayed with her life partner, another woman, and this, obviously was tantamount to blasphemy for the puritans. It didn’t help that Hitler wanted to portray a puritanical image of himself, and relied on it heavily, as his political advantage.
Every now and then, there were news of German troops storming through the city, attacking people with apparently low moral values. There were of course the homosexuals, the lesbians, transgender, the gypsies, and the prostitutes who dared work without proper licence. Thus the advent of the term, ‘Maison d’abattage’, meaning Slaughterhouses. The women serviced more than three score customers each day. The public with their tickets, awaited their turns. There would be stray news of another dead girl, who, people would assume, was killed by a member of the ‘Brigade de repression du proxénétisme’. Death had become cheaper and morality policing was the call of the day.
“I feel lonely and lost, looking up at the stars that smile down as if nothing has really happened to the world and all’s well. My heart yearns for the city I once knew; it may have impoverished me, even made a pittance of a cheap writer of me, but it never hitherto scared me the way it was doing now.”
Where were the girls, I thought, slamming shut the notebook. Chloe simply refused to come to me any longer. Not when I don’t meet Francine. But how could a noble woman like Chloé be inspired by someone like Francine? Deep inside, I knew the answer all along.
Sauntering the path from Jardin des Champs Élysées along the most romantic and most expensive avenue in the world, must have left me looking like a fool. Even as I cast an eye at the cabaret houses dotting the path ahead of me, a gentle touch nudged me back to my senses.
The speaker was a girl, who looked not more than fourteen, and had the kind of seductive eyes that could send a grand guignol artiste go begging for alms, or it may have been the night that made her ruby red lips look so alluring and her beseeching liquid eyes look so enticing.
I was automatically drawn to her fragrance. She seemed like a stroke of liquid happiness that could take over any man, heady and mind-boggling… the night seemed inky black, and the stars like glittering diamonds.
Chloé traversed the path between Montmartre and Montparnasse holding on to her paper bag that had her paintbrushes and tubes of colours. She looked back a few times, but couldn’t discern what comprised her ill-feeling. She thought someone was following her. She realized with a jolt that she hadn’t asked Genevieve to return her pendant. Monsieur Pierrot would be so upset. She didn’t even know how to find that girl again, but her body ached with pleasure as she imagined the soft afternoon sun hitting her svelte frame, as she posed for her.
Her liquid eyes and ruby red lips were so inviting; she had laid a kiss on her toe so softly at first, and then had pleadingly held on…
She didn’t realize that this was the kind of liberty Les Années Folles had spoken about. No matter, there sprung up around where she stood, a new variety of parlours. Not the destitute artistes toiling with their paintbrushes, but more like refined men and women who came together to share their views, their bodies and their souls to the concepts of new-age liberty. Maybe, they ended up being broken and demented, but it was a high, unlike what anything else could provide. Sheer happiness came wrapped up in such new-age works. Hemingway, Picasso, Stein… they all broke the moulds of the societal norms.
As Chloé realized this was why she’d been feeling so dissatisfied with herself ever since her marriage with Pierrot, Genevieve had whispered into her ear –
“Vendez votre âme au diable”.
She knew she didn’t care if she was selling her soul to the devil, but she wanted to savour Genevieve’s youth, drink her beauty. She closed her eyes as she took in Genevieve’s lips in hers. It was a strange dizziness taking her, and she felt inebriated. That is when she felt a strange coldness creep into her very being; she opened her eyes and she found Genevieve biting her on the neck, passionately, slowly and licking her ruby red lips. But only, they seemed redder now…
Her name was Chloé too. She mounted me, her beautiful face framed by her locks, golden and hanging in curls around it. I mentally made a note about writing this experience in my novel about Madame Camille La Motte. The problem was that Chloé kept returning to me in bursts, and she took away bits and pieces of Madame Camille. It was as if they both couldn’t exist simultaneously. Neither of the books were anywhere near completion, and I’d literally started living out the life of a tramp, not returning to my Spartan dwelling for days on end. I had no money to pay the landlady my rent, which was already due for the last four months’ time.
The villa was beautiful. The Seine glistened in the distance like a ribbon of light. I wondered why it had seemed so dark when Chloé had approached me on the road. It also irritated me that the lights dotting the avenue kept shining as if the world wasn’t going to pieces, as if the city had decided to turn a blind eye to the swarming sea of feldgrau that now lined along all major avenues. So many people had been persecuted around the city that I could hear the Seine weep for the lost souls in the dead of the night.
Yet, I traced my steps along the alleyways, the cobbled by-streets, trying not to look at piles of rubble here and there, trying to imitate the others who feigned ignorance about a generation that was dying a pathetic death. I had already begun making a living by writing by pen name, rather than my own, because I knew that today or tomorrow, filthy scoundrels like me were going to be crucified too. I looked at the clock that ticked obediently. It was nearly midnight; Chloé had been going down on me like there was no tomorrow.
Another hour later, I heard the soft rhythm of her breath as she gradually slipped into a peaceful sleep. I took out my notebook with the red cover. I now carried both with me; the red one for my erotica, the other one with a brown cover for Chloé.
I knew the ending now; it simply couldn’t have been anything else. Madame La Motte would have to kill Hans. He was a servant, a bloody servant, and to think of his temerity… he’d refused the mistress of the house for a parasite. A beautiful young girl, all the same.
Madame La Motte brought her fingers to her lips; they tasted alkaline. She imagined it was the taste of hatred. They were wet and slippery; she ached for Hans, and licked her lips as she reiterated the scene from the other days; his muscular back rippling with the effort, the soft moans from Celia gradually escalating as her white and slender fingers dug at Hans’ back.
Madame La Motte had sent her chambermaid to bring Hans to her. She’d said that she wanted to hand him his termination, but in her heart of hearts she knew it would be dagger now. The dagger she’d lovingly presented to Jacques on her wedding night. She was a rather unusual woman.
“Mon ami! You write so well.”
I started to find Chloé standing behind me. She pulled me to her, flinging away the notebook that fell with a thud.
It was past midnight when I sauntered into the brothel. I needed to speak to Francine. I wanted to take her away from there. I guessed this was my best bet at love.
I peered into the room where I’d so often sneaked in. There was no one there.
I kept looking into all the rooms. No signs of Francine. I asked a girl who said she didn’t know where Francine was, nor Marie.
I approached Perle, the Madame of the house. She looked perplexed. Then she nodded.
“We don’t have anyone named Francine here.”
“What about Marie?”
She nodded denying knowing about any Marie either.
I began getting angry. I knew she didn’t want us to be together, the whore that she was.
“Used to be girls by that name a few years back. They went away one night last autumn to the German quarters and never returned.”
I stood bewildered….
“We never went to enquire; there are so many girls who don’t have a permit. So, we just let it be. By the way, was your Francine a red-head?” The words kept getting blurred…
I reached Chloé’s house around two in the morning. She opened the door, her perfect teeth glistening, her lips inviting, but I was in no mood for it. Neither did she appear to be.
She took me by my fingers and took me to the desk by the window, on which I’d sat writing the other day.
“Finish your story” she said.
“Madame La Motte should actually slit Hans’ throat, and taste his blood. She can always say he’d wanted to rape her. After all, he is black, isn’t he? Your Chloé needs closure too. Genevieve’s lips are so ruby red because La Motte brings the dagger to her mouth, tasting Hans’ blood. She devours him…
I was bewildered. How did this girl know the names of all the characters from my story? The page I’d been writing never mentioned that Hans was black. Also, how could she know about Chloé?
My head was pounding. I feverishly took out my pen, scribbling on the pages.
Chloé came to me, and whispered into my ears…
“Vendez votre âme au diable” This is going to be new religion of love, mon ami. Unlike this city, and the society that devours a generation. The lost generation. Isn’t that beautiful? Only you and I know how the underbelly of the city of love stinks of madness and fear and death, mon ami. Come to me!”
I felt a sudden coldness creep into my skin. I knew my masterpiece had been completed….